Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review: The Drunken Botinist

The Drunken Botanist

The Drunken Botanist

The first thing I want to say is that I enjoyed Amy Stewart’s “The Drunken Botanist”. The book is well researched, well crafted in a reader friendly voice that manages to explain science and history while still being entertaining. Stewart is through, if something contributed to the contents of a bottle on the liquor shelf she discusses it and she does not let the “Botanist” is the title restrict her to plant life. I am the annoying type of reader that needs to share particularly interesting bits of information as I read them, my wife is lucky that she was not with me as I read this. Most pages would have started me going, repeating some factoid that I thought was fascinating. The thing is I understand that most people do not share my interests.
Sure, most people, not all, like to drink but most don’t garden and, as far as I can tell, they don’t care that they can’t tell one plant from another. People are interested in history but most are interested in one era or subject. Stewart tells, indirectly, the history of world trade, the movement and development of agriculturally important plants. and the development of the technology for using them and she wraps it all up in the story of booze. Then again people do like to drink and eat, and every plant discussed in Stewart’s book can be or has been consumed in one way or another. The descriptions of the plants, their histories and uses might seem like they go on forever, with much repetition, if you sit down to read the book in one sitting. I grab a little time here and there to read which mostly prevented me from experiencing information overload but at least once I felt is coming on.
Every book on alcohol contains drink recipes and “The Drunken Botanist” is no exception but there are not as many as I would have guessed. Stewart carefully picked the recipes to feature the plant under discussion which means that some have very specific ingredients. Home bartenders like me will need to think twice about before adding a bottle to their bar that might only be used once. However Stewart’s drinks looked interesting enough that I have already decided to try a few of them. A bottle of Karlsson’s Vodka, which will get used even if I don’t like it on rocks with cracked pepper, some ingredients from the baking section of a good grocery, a little time making a syrup is not much of a cost to pay if the drinks are interesting. After all I have been trying new things since the day I was born.

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Filed under Book review, Cocktails, Drink, Food

Review: Bitters: a spirited history of a classic cure-all

Book cover Bitters

Bitters : a spirited history of a classic cure-all, with cocktails, recipes & formulas

This year for Christmas my wife gave me three books on cocktails. She knows that when I get interested in a subject I tend to go all in. I am not sure why I chose to read Brad Parsons’ “Bitters: a spirited history of a classic cure-all, with cocktails, recipes & formulas” but I am glad I did. Parsons covers a lot of territory in this book. The history of bitters, in cocktails and otherwise, turns out to be more interesting than I expected. Prohibition plays a big part in the story but bitters are much older than the cocktail hour.

Parsons includes recipes, to  make your own bitters and for cocktails that use them. To demonstrate their importance, after all how much difference can a “dash” of something make in an entire cocktail? I found that it can make a lot of difference. Parsons offers a demonstration, make two of a simple cocktail recipe, one with and one without bitters. The difference between the two is more than noticeable.

A section titled “Setting up Your Bar” has the best advice I have seen for creating a home bar. It leads you through the tools you will need and those you might want, it discusses glassware, mixers, and even the spirits you might want to stock. Except for his endorsement of Mason jars for drinking I think the advice is sound. I was a little confused after looking up the word Amari, a subset used in his listing of spirits. It is just Italian for bitters. Sure they, mostly come in bigger bottles than the bitters pictured on the cover but I would have hoped for some discussion of them. I know it is always possible that I read over it so I checked the index. There was no listing. It is not a big problem but I have to wonder if something else was missed.

The recipes that I have tried were good. I have not tried to make my own bitters yet but the instructions were very straight forward. Parsons divided the cocktail recipes into three sections, Hall of Fame, Old Guard, and New Look. Often cocktail recipes suffer from demanding specific brand name spirits or exotic liquors that the home bar will only need once. That is not a problem here except for in the “New Look” section and needing a variety of flavored bitters. But then that, bitters, is what the book is about. The final section of recipes, Bitters in the Kitchen, looks very good. The Bitters Vinaigrette is on my to do list.

In appendices Parsons’ includes a list of web resources for spirits, liquors, mixers, bar supplies and the herbs to make your own bitters as well as a bibliography. I am hopeful that these will lead me to a source for mixers that are not syrupy sweet. I should also mention that the book won two awards, the 2012 James Beard Foundation Award and the 2012 International Association of Culinary Professionals (ICAP) Cookbook Award in their Wine, Beer, and Spirits category.

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Review: The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams

Book cover of The Education of John Quincy Adams

The Education of John Quincy Adams

Phyllis Levin’s “The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams” is a detailed look at the life and family of our sixth president from his childhood through serving as ambassador to Russia during the War of 1812 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. John Quincy’s time as Secretary of State, as President and in Congress doing his best to assault the “peculiar institution” of slavery, is still ahead of him. These are the years, according to Levin’s title, when John Quincy receives his “remarkable education.”

During the early decades of the United State’s existence it was very common for people to keep journals, diaries. Thanks to the Adams family observation of this popular pastime and their, and their ancestors, digilant preservation of letters, provided Levin with a wealth of primary documentation to work with. At one point she even mentions what John Quincy had for dinner, as a demonstration of the wealth of resources available, not from any compulsion for completeness. The family journals and letters, along with the standard documents related to his and his father’s government service, provided Levin detailed insight on John Quincy’s public, personal and private lives.

My real interest in John Quincy Adams lies in his work in Congress, after his time in the White House and long after the events of this book. Still, Levin kept me interested. Her writing is excellent, nothing about the book is dry and scholastic except the quality of the research. I think any one interested in the Adams family, the early history of the United States, or of its diplomats will be interested in this book.

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2014 Reading List

Father Time

Father Time marches on.

I only managed to read 22 books this year. Even considering that several of them were well over 400 pages long I am a little disappointed. I did manage to review all but the last on, which I am working on right now and should be ready to post next week.

The worst was Peter Bronson’s “Behind the Lines” where he tries to explain away the 2001 manslaughter of Timothy Thomas by an inexperienced police officer unfamiliar with the area who, against instructions, chased Thomas down a dark, narrow walkway and shot him dead as he reached for his phone. It turned out to be a story that kept repeating through the year. Just like today the reaction against the unjust killing was blamed on the victims of police violence.

On a personal level Christine Sismondo’s “America Walks into a Bar” might be the most important. That is the book that made me want to try a Lime Rickey and got me started on the path to a home bar. In the larger world Martin J. Blaser’s book “Missing Microbes” could turn out to be the book of the year. His argument that we and our bacteria evolved together, that we could have a myriad of symbiotic relationships with the bacteria that lives in and on us and that indiscriminately eliminating them can be, has been, detrimental to our health opens up vast field of investigation for medical researchers.

Here is the complete list.

1. Edsel, Robert M., and Bret Witter. The monuments men : allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history. New York: Center Street / Hachette Book Group, 2010

2. Deetz, James. In small things forgotten : an archaeology of early American life. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

3. Sismondo, Christine. America walks into a bar : a spirited history of taverns and saloons, speakeasies, and grog shops. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 2011.

4. Stiglitz, Joseph E. The price of inequality. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

5. Larson, Edward J. Summer for the gods : the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: BasicBooks, 2006.

6. Blaser, Martin J. Missing microbes : how the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

7. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2014.

8. Murtagh, William J. Keeping time : the history and theory of preservation in America. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley, 2006.

9. Bronson, Peter. Behind the lines : behind the lines of action, between the lines of truth, the untold stories of the Cincinnati riots. Milford. OH: Chilidog Press, 2006.

10. Shriver, Maria, and Olivia Morgan. The Shriver report : a woman’s nation pushes back from the brink : a study. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

11. Connell, Robert L. Fierce patriot : the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random House, 2014.

12. Cronkite, Walter, Maurice Isserman, and Walter Cronkite. Cronkite’s war : his World War II letters home. Washington, D.C: National Geographic Society, 2013.

13. Johnson, Jacqueline. Western College for Women. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

14. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

15. King, Quentin S. Henry Clay and the War of 1812. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

16. Bradley, David. The historic murder trial of George Crawford : Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the case that put all-white southern juries on trial. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

17. Potter, Maximillian, and Donald Corren. Shadows in the vineyard : the true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. Solon, Ohio: Findaway World, LLC, 2014.

18. Bailey, Mark, and Edward Hemingway. Of all the gin joints : stumbling through Hollywood history. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.

19. Krist, Gary. Empire of sin : a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. New York: Crown, 2014.

20. Trudeau, Noah A. Southern storm : Sherman’s march to the sea. New York: Harper, 2008.

21. Henry, David, and Joe Henry. Furious cool : Richard Pryor and the world that made him. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.

22. Levin, Phyllis L. The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams. London New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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